Purpleleaf Sand Cherry
Prunus x cistena


An entire Purpleleaf Sand Cherry tree in the summer (1)


The Purpleleaf Sand Cherry belongs to the Rose Family (1).  Its identifying characteristics include: simple, alternate leaves with thin grayish stems, reddish-purple leaves, and small, sour black fruit (1).  The leaves are about 2 inches long, serrated, and elliptical (2).  These plants are shallow-rooted and will produce suckers if the roots are damaged (3).  The trunk of the tree has a gray to gray-brown color with oozing sap (2).  This tree is about 6 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide when it is mature.  It grows uniformly in an upright oval shape (8). The Sand Cherry produces single pinkish flowers, along with its small blackish fruit, that attract other species.  

Location on Campus

The Purpleleaf Sand Cherry is located in front of George Hall.  It is at the end of the path that leads from Smyth Hall, by the Mother House, and to George Hall.  It is on the left side of the path.  

Native Habitat and Current Range

The geographic range of the Purpleleaf 

Sand Cherry (5)

The Purpleleaf Sand Sherry tree is found in deciduous areas.  Many are found in the Great Plains region (7).  It grows mainly in zones 3-7 (5).  It can survive in a wide range of climates and soil types, which allows this tree to grow in many areas (5).  The parents of this hybrid are native to Western Asia and Caucasia (Prunus cerasifera) and the Northeastern United States (Prunus pumila) (2).


Optimal Growing Conditions

The pinkish-white flowers of the 

Purpleleaf Sand Cherry (4)

The Sand Cherry can tolerate both hot, dry conditions and cold conditions because its foliage grows thick on the branches.  The habitat for the Sand Cherry must provide the tree with adequate sunlight, and the soil must be moist enough for the plant to survive (2).  This plant, while not fast-growing, grows at a steady rate (1).  Sand Cherries can grow in a variety of soils including: acidic, loamy, moist, clay, sandy, and well-drained soils (2).  The pH of the soil must be between 3.7 and 7.3 (5).  This plant is propagated by rooted stem cuttings (2).  If never pruned, the branches of Sand Cherries will weigh down with age, leading to an opening in the center of the tree (2).  

Economic Importance

The Purpleleaf Sand Cherry is mostly valued for its reddish-purple foliage, fragrant white and pink spring flowers, and purple-black fruit (8).  Because of these unique characteristics and because of the plant's hardiness, the Sand Cherry is widely used for landscaping (8).  The Purpleleaf Sand Cherry is a focal point shrub because it stands out so well and can be used at borders, entranceways, as a deciduous screen, in-group plantings, or as a formal or informal hedge (8).  It makes a wonderful hedge because it only grows 6 to 8 feet tall (8).  Only a few ornamental trees, such as the Purpleleaf Sand Cherry, possess reddish-purple foliage (2).     

Ethnobotanical and Cultural Information

Black fruit found on Purpleleaf Sand 

Cherries (9)

There are really no known ethnobotanical uses for this tree.  It was first developed in 1910, so in relation to many other plant species, it has not been around very long. The fruit is used for making jellies, jams, and pie, but is not not usually eaten directly from the tree (2).  

Fascinating Facts

Japanese beetle (10)
  • It was a crossbred tree developed by Dr. Niels Hansen of South Dakota State University in 1910 (3).  The Purpleleaf Sand Cherry is a hybrid between P. pumila and P. cerasifera (2).  Since this species is a hybrid it will not breed true from seed (6). 

  • Prunus is the Latin name for plum, x indicates that the plant has a hybrid nature, and cistena comes from the Sioux word for "baby" (2).

  • The fruits are edible and provide a great food source for many small birds including robins, cardinals, and waxwings. Many of these birds also nest in the tree (2,3).  In areas such as Nebraska, the fruit provides nourishment for coyotes (7). 

  • Sand Cherries have significant disease and pest problems that result in a relatively short service life of 10 to 15 years (2).  As the plant ages, it becomes more susceptible to trunk cankers and pests that bore into the trunk.  These pests include honey fungus and the Japanese Beetle, whose favorite delicacy is the Purpleleaf Sand Cherry. (2,6).                  

  • Most of the members of genus Prunus produce hydrogen cyanide, which is a toxin found in the leaves and seed.  There is only a small amount present so it is not harmful, but it can be deadly in larger quantities.  Smaller doses of hydrogen cyanide can improve digestion and help treat cancer.  There is no research showing the presence of hydrogen cyanide in the Purpleleaf Sand Cherry (6).

  • In the fall, the reddish–purple leaves and black fruit change to a bronzy-green color (6).  When this plant is young, the twigs have a red-brown color, but this color turns dark gray as the plant ages (2). 

Other interesting sites

Looking to purchase a Purpleleaf     Sand Cherry tree?  Check out the Sleepy Hollow Nursery Web Pag:.http://www.sleepyhollownursery.com/descriptions.asp?cn=p  

This site contains a short biography and information on the works of the man that developed the Purpleleaf Sand Cherry: Dr. Niels Hansen. http://lib.sdstate.edu/archives/ua/ua53_4.html#scope%20II  

References: Articles, Books, Reference Materials, and the Web

  1. Davidson, H., R. Mecklenburg and C. Peterson. 1994. Nursery management, administration and culture. 3rd ed. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 486pp. 

  2. Evans, E. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/
    .  Accessed November 12 2003

  3. Fichter, E; Schildman, G; Sather, H.  Some Feeding Patterns of Coyotes in Nebraska.  Ecological Monographs, Vol. 25, No. 1. pp. 1-37. 

  4. Hansen, K. http://www.gardenbed.com/p/5641.cfm. Accessed November 12 2003.   

  5. Krahn, V., Krahn, L. http://www.selectseedlingnursery.com/
    .  Accessed December 2 2003.

  6. Hutchings, J.  Builder’s Guide to Landscaping.  McGraw Hill: New York. 1997 

  7. MacKellar, B. http://www.msue.msu.edu/vanburen/japbet.htm. Accessed December 2 2003.

  8. The National Arbor Day Foundation. http://www.arborday.org/treeguide/nitree.cfm?id=109. Accessed November 12 2003.   

  9. Ohio State University. http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hcs/TMI/Plantlist/
    Accessed November 12 2003 

  10. University of Connecticut. http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/p/prucis/prucis1.html. Accessed November 12 2003. 

Created by:  Christopher O'Donnell


Nazareth College

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Plant Biology 2003